Ramsey County Commissioner Bennett reflects on his time in office

Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett of Shoreview is close to completing 16 years of public service on the county board.

He was sworn into office in 1996 and has been re-elected to four consecutive terms. Bennett, who represents District 1 will conclude his final terms on the board in early January.

It all began with police work

In the 26 years Bennett worked for the St. Paul Police Department he can only recall one time where he felt pressure to change professions, and that was from his wife, Pat Bennett, who was worried about his safety.

He remembers being dispatched to the scenes of a string of potentially dangerous police calls in 1977.

In one instance he had to shoot an armed man who had every intention of killing him. The man was trying to grab a 9 mm handgun from underneath a sofa.

Ironically, he pulled the same man over some time later in a routine traffic stop. The guy immediately recognized officer Bennett and shouted, "Don't shoot!"

Bennett said he loved being a cop, and it was police work that started his ambitious career in public service.

Commissioner Bennett, a life-long Ramsey County resident, also served Minnesota as a Republican legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 12 years and as a U.S. marshal for four years.

As a U.S. marshal he was responsible for all security during the famed Walter vs. Moody trial over a six-month period. He made a large number of arrests in raids over four years of service, some of which he remains reserved about - presumably for personal safety reasons. No matter how seemingly perilous the job, he said he always took pleasure in his work.

"I've enjoyed every job that I've had," Bennett said. "I like solving problems."

It's his ability to solve problems and overcome challenges that Bennett's colleagues say have helped to make him an effective leader in public service.

"Tony is a real visionary. He's very persistent at getting people to see things his way," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jan Parker, who is also retiring from the board next month.

Landmark legislation

Bennett has accomplished a lot over the course of his career.

As a state lawmaker he recounts authoring the bill establishing the state's lottery, championing a bill allowing Minnesota motorists to turn right at a red light (which previously was illegal) and casting the deciding vote on the Mall of America funding as some of his more memorable accomplishments.

Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said that Bennett has been a leading advocate for Ramsey County on both the national and state levels.

Reinhardt said that Bennett always made sure that anyone who wanted to partner on a project was invited to the table. She points to his collaboration with the federal government to get a new public works facility for the county as just one example.

"Tony has been an incredible steward to our communities, and he will be missed," Reinhardt said.

Among other accomplishments while working on the county government level, Bennett said he's proud of the work he and other commissioners did to improve infrastructure, such as construction of a light-rail line and most recently the revitalization of the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul.

"It's funny because the press used to call us the odd couple because we have such different styles, but we worked on transit, public works and other projects together with success," Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said.

Bruising stadium battle

Ortega said he enjoyed promoting and advocating for the construction of a new Vikings stadium in Arden Hills with Bennett as well. While many looked favorably upon the proposal to build the stadium on the abandoned Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site, it also had many detractors.

Although that proposal did not go as planned, Bennett said he doesn't think it necessarily cost him the election. Bennett lost in a primary earlier this year.

He believes a lot of people in the district expected him to win and many of his supporters didn't show up to vote. It was a low turnout and a close primary.

Bennett said the Arden Hills site was an eyesore. He lives close to the 430-acre parcel, which has been purchased by the county from the federal government for development. The once polluted site is being cleaned up to meet residential code. He contends that development on the site will have a positive impact on the surrounding community in the future.

The commissioner isn't sure what his future holds exactly, stating that he hasn't had much time to think about it yet. He is, after all, still working as a county commissioner, for a few more weeks and serving on several boards.

He said that he and Pat are considering taking a month-long road trip around the United States. At 72, Bennett may not be ready to fully retire just yet. He is considering working as a consultant on a part-time basis.

Joshua Nielsen can be contacted at staffwriter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7824.